Walk along a beach or waterway and you’re apt to see a food wrapper floating on the water or glimpse a beverage bottle made of plastic hovering near the shore. Read an article about the ocean gyres, the so-called “garbage patches,” and you’re likely to hear about the vast amounts of plastics that are polluting the seas.
Three years ago, researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) set out to quantify – for the first time – the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land-based sources. Their research shows staggering results – with annual plastics inputs into the ocean exceeding 4.8 million tonnes and possibly as high as 12.7 million tonnes (approx. 11-26 billion pounds). Because the quantities are growing rapidly due to increases both in population and in plastics use, there may be as much as 250 million tons (550 billion pounds) of plastic in the ocean within another decade. These findings were published today in the February issue of Science and provide more in-depth information about what is happening with plastics in the ocean.
Once plastics enter the marine environment they disperse across our global ocean. There is no one single entry point for ocean plastic pollution. In fact, the global problem is comprised of a myriad of local inputs from beaches and waterways around the world. But the recent research shows that the largest amounts of plastic in the ocean come from a relatively small number of rapidly developing economies. In fact, 83 percent of the plastic waste that is available to enter the ocean comes from just 20 countries; chief among them are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines with the United States rounding out the top 20. The economies where plastic inputs are greatest are those where population growth and plastics consumption is severely outpacing waste management capacity. In many of these geographies waste collection is simply nonexistent.
200 miles, 7 beaches, 4 islands and over 7,500 pieces of trash: These numbers can be used to describe my time with Rozalia Project in the Gulf of Maine. But they don’t tell the whole story. Instead “inspiring” seems to capture most of my emotions.
Incredible scenery and wildlife served as the backdrop for the long days we spent collecting and removing trash while living aboard American Promise. Not only were we surrounded by a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins as we sailed south from Hurricane Island, but we also had a finback whale come within 5 meters of the boat at sunset. We saw the spouts of another whale in the moonlight reflecting off the ocean, and we observed harbor porpoises and seals, a pair of bald eagles and even an ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, in Gosport Harbor.
Our crew of 10—eight people and two dogs—were united with one goal: to remove as much trash from the shoreline and ocean surface as possible while recording data about each and every item we removed. Sailing from Bar Harbor to Kittery, Maine, we conducted seven shoreline cleanups on four different islands, and aboard American Promise, we performed three Neuston net tows and multiple dip-net sessions—all resulting in the collection of a lot of trash.
Trash travels. It’s a phrase that’s been uttered hundreds, maybe thousands of times to convey the pervasiveness of trash and plastics in our global ocean.
But now trash has infiltrated the lineup—that congregation of surfers floating just beyond the furthest break, each one jockeying to get the jump on the next wave. For me, the lineup has always been a place of simultaneous solitude, camaraderie and exhilaration. It is a firewall between tranquility and unrivaled adrenaline.
Indonesia—better known as “Indo” in the surfing world—is a mecca for surfers seeking some of the world’s most secluded yet infamous breaks. It’s an idyllic place. Placid turquoise seas erupt into mountains of water that break with tremendous power onto razor-sharp reefs just inches below the surface.
Surfers who triumphantly survive barreling tubes in this part of the world are almost surreal and have often earned the brave rider “Wave of the Year” honors.
During a recent trip to Bali, though, surfer and photographer, Zak Noyle, captured images of a new kind of barrel—one that may become as infamous as the waves themselves: waves of trash.
Watermelon, baseball, cookouts, beach trips and fireworks: Does it get any better than summer? Summer is my favorite season for many reasons, but sitting in the sand with a warm summer breeze while watching fireworks takes me back to being a kid and the sheer joy summer entails.
The Fourth of July is also a day that unites all Americans. No matter where you live, it’s the perfect day to gather with family and friends, spend time outside and end the evening gazing upward at colorful explosions in sky.
But amid the excitement of finding the perfect perch to watch the fireworks display and the rush to beat the traffic after the show concludes, it’s easy to forget all the small pieces of cardboard and plastic that float back down to the ground after the amazing spectacle in the sky. Unfortunately, this debris can end up in our ocean, affecting the health of people, wildlife and economies.
During Ocean Conservancy’s 2012 Marine Life and Seascape Photo Contest, we received over 600 entries, showcasing everything from sea turtles to sharks to seashells. Though there were plenty of amazing photographs, only one could be our grand-prize winner.
Photographer Joshua Cripps shares with us the story behind his award-winning photo, “Motukiekie Galaxies”:
What’s the story behind this photo?
I took this photo at Motukiekie Beach on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand during a month-long photography expedition. It’s a remarkable beach full of tide pools, mirror-like sand, massive tidal swings and intriguing sea stacks and caves.
What made you take the photo?
I have a sometimes-dangerous habit of being too curious: “Hmm, what’s just over that cliff?” “Can I jump down into this canyon?” In this case I saw some tide pools right at the water’s edge and wanted to go investigate them, despite the fact that the water was rising quickly and I knew I’d probably get soaked by going out there.
But once I rock-hopped out to the tidal pools, I found hundreds of these 12-legged sea stars clinging to the rocks. That amazing sight, along with the beautiful sea stacks farther out to sea and the moody conditions at the time, left me with no question that I was going to take a photo.
Starting today, hundreds of volunteers will begin heading to the beach every morning just before sunrise in search of tracks left by some exciting visitors: female sea turtles coming ashore under the cloak of darkness to lay their eggs.
May 1 marks the start of sea turtle nesting season in the southeast United States; it’s the only time of year when these animals return to dry sand after spending almost their entire lives in the ocean. Female sea turtles tend to return to the same stretch of beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs. After hatching, baby sea turtles must dig their way out of the sand and sprint to the surf while avoiding predators ranging from foxes and raccoons to sea birds and ghost crabs.
The dedicated volunteers who walk these beaches every morning look for signs of new sea turtle nests so that they can monitor and protect the nest sites and track how many turtles hatch. Yet on most walks, these volunteers find more trash on the beach than sea turtle tracks.
From the Oregon border to the Mexican border, the fish, birds, mammals and plants that depend on the dynamic habitats of the California coast now have a series of reserves and conservation areas that will allow their populations to recover where needed and protect them from depletion in the future. Not only is this good for the sea creatures, but a thriving ocean benefits all of California, from the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on healthy fisheries to all aspects of the state’s tourism-dependent economy …